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Young athletes suffering from repetitive brain injuries are committing suicide. They know there’s a problem with their brain because their methods, like drinking antifreeze, keep their brains intact. Their awareness is heartbreaking. Dr. Ann McKee, who oversees the ADC Neuropathology Core’s Brain Bank at the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University. She has studied the brains of more than 200 people in her eight years of research into CTE. “We do this because we are speaking for those people who can’t speak for themselves any longer.”
There was a time when seatbelts didn’t exist, much less were optional. Science proved less people died in car crashes if they were wearing their seatbelts. People, like my late husband, refused to wear them. After the law passed, he did. Reluctantly. For the kids. For me.
There was time when smoking was cool. People timed their phone calls with a cigarette – one more and then I’ll hang up. Movie stars filled pregnant pauses with a cigarette light-up and puff. Others used cigarettes as a diet aid – can’t be eating if you’re smoking (a lie, of course). Science proved smoking and second-hand smoke deposited tar and the poisonous nicotine in the lungs and killed people. Now, no smoking except for designated spaces.
No one who drove, especially teenage boys, like the seat-belt rule, but they lived. No one who smoked, especially the teenage boys and girls, liked giving up cigarettes, but they lived to enjoy their grandchildren.
Today, our athletes (six to forty-six) face death by CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) if they play, or played, a sport that causes repetitive brain trauma (sub-concussive) or multiple concussions: full contact football and boxing, primarily because the head takes repeated blows during a match, soccer, hockey, and rugby.
The Concussion Foundation says, “Brain trauma can cause a build-up of an abnormal type of a protein called tau, which slowly kills brain cells. Once started, these changes in the brain appear to continue to progress even after exposure to brain trauma has ended. Possible symptoms include memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, paranoia, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and eventually progressive dementia. Symptoms can begin to appear months, years, or even decades after trauma has ended. Currently, CTE can only be diagnosed after death by brain tissue analysis.”
Still, brain trauma is front and center with respect to professional football players’ health over the long term. According to the Sun-Sentinel, “That has never been more evident than this year; the list of former players who have joined concussion lawsuits against the NFL has reached more than 3,500.”
This means the inflexible NFL’s health coverage after retirement, for those who qualify, is inadequate. This reluctance from a $9 billion annual industry with its 32 franchises worth an average of $1 billion, is appalling. But what is worse, is that the audience for football and boxing support these sports despite the clear message: players are disposable.
Players are also culpable. Seduced by money and fame, they put their lives on the line for a few years of glory against a short lifetime of pain and dysfunction.
Before the argument, “The percentage of players dropping dead on the field is minimal,” takes over, I’m going to repeat that symptoms can begin to appear months, years, or even decades after trauma has ended. CTE is a hidden killer on and off the field. It is irreversible. The damage begins as soon as the tau builds up and goes to work — slowly killing the brain cells. A conservative estimate is 10% of football players die from CTE or CTE caused diseases. That’s one in ten. Not good odds.
This is the only country in the world that supports full contact football. It is not essential to play or watch to lead a fulfilled and rewarding life.
It all starts in school. Whether we like it or not, every time we let, encourage, support our youngsters to participate in head-banging sports, we are putting their lives at risk. Percentages mean nothing when it is your child down on the field, or immobilized in their room with skull-breaking headaches, depression, or impulse control issues. Or dead. By suicide.
In defense of football or boxing, you might ask, “How do I know it’s CTE?” Remember, CTE can only be diagnosed after death by brain tissue analysis. Doctors can make a diagnosis based on symptoms, but they can’t be sure until after a biopsy is done. This skews the percentage of CTE deaths. For example, if a teenage football player goes on to play in college, graduates, becomes a raging alcoholic by age thirty-four, and drives their car off a cliff. It’s a drunk-driver statistic. But, what if the drinking masked and medicated trauma symptoms. A brain biopsy might verify the cause as a CTE statistic instead.
We all get only one brain in this life. If our goal is to encourage our children and ourselves to be all that we can, it seems contraindicated to engage in any activity that consists of repetitive traumatic (sub-concussive and/or concussive) brain injury. CTE kills the athlete and victimizes the family.
SAVE YOUR BRAIN. This is something you, as a parent or a player, can do. Create a living will that, at the time of death, donates the brain to research. When that time arrives, call CTE Brain Donation Line 800-891-1342.
Faces of CTE, formed by the families affected by CTE, pursues a course of prevention, protection, and pursuit of science to identify, treat, and maybe even cure. SAVE YOUR BRAIN is a program that asks at-risk athletes and soldiers or their family) to donate their brain, upon death, regardless of circumstances, for a CTE autopsy. Brain donation information, intention letter, and autopsy request cards are available. CTE Brain Donation Line 800-891-1342.
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